Matthew 15:21-28

FAITH TESTED AND FAITH ANSWERED

Matt. 15:21-28

And Jesus left there, and withdrew to the districts of Tyre and Sidon. And, look you, a Canaanite woman from these parts came and cried, “Have pity upon me, Sir, Son of David! My daughter is grievously afflicted by a demon.” But he answered her not a word. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she is shrieking behind us.” Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” She came and knelt in entreaty before him. “Lord,” she said, “help me!” Jesus answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and to throw it to the pet dogs.” She said, “True, Lord, but even the dogs eat of the pieces which fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was restored to health from that hour.

There are tremendous implications in this passage. Apart from anything else, it describes the only occasion on which Jesus was ever outside of Jewish territory. The supreme significance of the passage is that it fore-shadows the going out of the gospel to the whole world; it shows us the beginning of the end of all the barriers.

For Jesus this was a time of deliberate withdrawal. The end was coming near; and he wished some time of quiet when he could prepare for the end. It was not so much that he wished to prepare himself, although that purpose was also in his mind, but rather that he wished some time in which he could prepare his disciples against the day of the Cross. There were things which he must tell them, and which he must compel them to understand.

There was no place in Palestine where he could be sure of privacy; wherever he went, the crowds would find him. So he went right north through Galilee until he came to the land of Tyre and Sidon where the Phoenicians dwelt. There, at least for a time, he would be safe from the malignant hostility of the Scribes and Pharisees, and from the dangerous popularity of the people, for no Jew would be likely to follow him into Gentile territory.

This passage shows us Jesus seeking a time of quiet before the turmoil of the end. This is not in any sense a picture of him running away; it is a picture of him preparing himself and his disciples for the final and decisive battle which lay so close ahead.

But even in these foreign parts Jesus was not to be free from the clamant demand of human need. There was a woman who had a daughter who was grievously afflicted. She must have heard somehow of the wonderful things which Jesus could do; and she followed him and his disciples crying desperately for help. At first Jesus seemed to pay no attention to her. The disciples were embarrassed. “Give her what she wants,” they said, “and be rid of her.” The reaction of the disciples was not really compassion at all; it was the reverse; to them the woman was a nuisance, and all they wanted was to be rid of her as quickly as possible. To grant a request to get rid of a person who is, or may become, a nuisance is a common enough reaction; but it is very different from the response of Christian love and pity and compassion.

But to Jesus there was a problem here. That he was moved with compassion for this woman we cannot for a moment doubt. But she was a Gentile. Not only was she a Gentile; she belonged to the old Canaanite stock, and the Canaanites were the ancestral enemies of the Jews. Even at that very time, or not much later, Josephus could write: “Of the Phoenicians, the Tyrians have the most ill-feeling towards us.” We have already seen that, if Jesus was to have any effect, he had to limit his objectives like a wise general. He had to begin with the Jews; and here was a Gentile crying for mercy. There was only one thing for him to do; he must awaken true faith in the heart of this woman.

So Jesus at last turned to her: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the pet dogs.” To call a person a dog was a deadly and a contemptuous insult. The Jew spoke with arrogant insolence about “Gentile dogs,” “infidel dogs,” and later “Christian dogs.” In those days the dogs were the unclean scavengers of the street-lean, savage, often diseased. But there are two things to remember.

The tone and the look with which a thing is said make all the difference. A thing which seems hard can be said with a disarming smile. We can call a friend “an old villain”, or “a rascal”, with a smile and a tone which take an the sting out of it and fill it with affection. We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness.

Second, it is the diminutive word for dogs (kunaria, GSN2952) which is used, and the kunaria (GSN2952) were not the street dogs, but the little household pets, very different from the pariah dogs who roamed the streets and probed in the refuse heaps.

The woman was a Greek; she was quick to see, and she had all a Greek’s ready wit. “True,” she said, “but even the dogs get their share of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” And Jesus’ eyes lit up with joy at such an indomitable faith; and he granted her the blessing and the healing which she so much desired.

THE FAITH WHICH WON THE BLESSING

Matt. 15:21-28 (continued)

There are certain things about this woman which we must note.

(i) First and foremost, she had love. As Bengel said of her, “She made the misery of her child her own.” Heathen she might be, but in her heart there was that love for her child which is always the reflection of God’s love for his children. It was love which made her approach this stranger; it was love which made her accept his silence and yet still appeal; it was love which made her suffer the apparent rebuffs; it was love which made her able to see the compassion beyond and behind the words of Jesus. The driving force of this woman’s heart was love; and there is nothing stronger and nothing nearer God than that very thing.

(ii) This woman had faith. (a) It was a faith which grew in contact with Jesus. She began by calling him Son of David; that was a popular title, a political title. It was a title which looked on Jesus as a great and powerful wonder worker, but which looked on him in terms of earthly power and glory. She came asking a boon of one whom she took to be a great and powerful man. She came with a kind of superstition as she might have come to any magician. She ended by calling Jesus Lord.

Jesus, as it were, compelled her to look at himself, and in him she saw something that was not expressible in earthly terms at all, but was nothing less than divine. That is precisely what Jesus wanted to awaken in her before he granted her request. He wanted her to see that a request to a great man must be turned into a prayer to the living God. We can see this woman’s faith growing as she is confronted with Christ, until she glimpsed him, however distantly, for what he was.

(b) It was a faith which worshipped. She began by following; she ended upon her knees, She began with a request; she ended in prayer. Whenever we come to Jesus, we must come first with adoration of his majesty, and only then with the statement of our own need.

(iii) This woman had indomitable persistence. She was undiscourageable. So many people, it has been said, pray really because they do not wish to miss a chance. They do not really believe in prayer; they have only the feeling that something might just possibly happen. This woman came because Jesus was not just a possible helper; he was her only hope. She came with a passionate hope, a clamant sense of need, and a refusal to be discouraged. She had the one supremely effective quality in prayer–she was in deadly earnest. Prayer for her was no ritual form; it was the outpouring of the passionate desire of her soul, which somehow felt that she could not–and must not–and need not–take no for an answer.

(iv) This woman had the gift of cheerfulness. She was in the midst of trouble; she was passionately in earnest; and yet she could smile. She had a certain sunny-heartedness about her. God loves the cheerful faith, the faith in whose eyes there is always the light of hope, the faith with a smile which can light the gloom.

This woman brought to Christ a gallant and an audacious love, a faith which grew until it worshipped at the feet of the divine, an indomitable persistence springing from an unconquerable hope, a cheerfulness which would not be dismayed. That is the approach which cannot help finding an answer to its prayers.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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